Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians

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Smith, Johnny

Smith, Johnny (John Henry Smith, Jr), guitar (b. Birmingham, Alabama, June 25, 1922). Johnny Smith may be the ultimate “musician’s musician”. Entirely self-taught on guitar, his brilliant yet understated technique has been the envy of many aspiring musicians. His first professional job was with a hillbilly band, Uncle Lem and the Mountain Boys, but he soon heard jazz on the radio and taught himself to play in that style. He enlisted in the Army Air Corps, and after being rejected as a pilot due to imperfect vision, he joined the military band. When he left the military, he was a seasoned professional musician and sought his fame in New York City. He was the first choice of conductor Dimitri Mitropoulos to play on recordings of Schoenberg’s “Serenade” and Berg’s opera “Wozzeck”, both of which call for extraordinary technical prowess. Smith was equally comfortable playing jazz in New York nightclubs and playing in the broadcasting networks’ studio orchestras. He was a member of the Benny Goodman Sextet for about a year, both playing and arranging for the group. In 1952, he recorded a version of “Moonlight In Vermont” with Stan Getz that became a huge hit record. From then on, most of his work was as a leader. Then, in 1958, his second wife died, and Smith decided that New York was not where he wanted to raise his children. He moved to Colorado Springs and opened the Johnny Smith Guitar Center, a music store and studio.

While Smith's style featured block chord voicings and virtuosic runs, his overall approach was quiet and subdued. He was a master at ballads and occasionally recorded solo transcriptions of classical works like Debussy's "The Girl With The Flaxen Hair". His most famous original composition was "Walk, Don't Run", later covered by the Ventures. His small-group recordings for Roost were collected for a set on Mosaic Records, but that set did not include his two albums with strings nor his collaborations with vocalists Jeri Southern, Beverly Kenny and Ruth Price. After leaving Roost, he recorded 3 albums for Verve. He has designed several guitars which were marketed under his name by Gibson, Guild and Heritage.From the mid-70s to the mid-90s, he made occasional trips to New York for recordings and concerts, but gradually moved into retirement.

Contributor: Thomas Cunniffe